Saturday, June 26, 2010

Day 22: American as Apple Pie - The M16 Part 1

To start off I just want to say that I had never been an AR-15/M16 'guy' until a couple years ago. I had always seen my self as an AK47 aficionado in the 50 year long debate. I think one of the reasons for this was the fact that many people take the M16's history away from it in a ritualistic sort of way that was never seen in the AK world (or at least wasn't seen to the same magnitude). On top of the people who defaced their M16s you had another camp that believed because they spent more than double, in some cases triple or greater, the cost of an AK47 clone that their firearm was a better platform. Those people had an air of undeserved arrogance to them - sometime that I know turned off more than myself to the wonderfully rich world of the AR-15.

Its important to note at this juncture that I will undoubtedly be switching and using the terms AR-15 and M16 almost interchangeably throughout this post. Of course some will argue they are not the same, and of course they're not, but for the purpose of this article it will work just dandy.

Over the last few year I've had a few AR-15s come and go because I really did not see a point in the items I had. That all changed when I fell into a period in my life when I became fascinated with the history of the Vietnam War. When I started researching the original M16s I found out the tremendously rich history that they have had over the last five or so decades. Everyone has heard the horror stories of the original M16s failing and costing American lives during the early part of the Vietnam War but thats only a small enclave in an extremely large cadre of history. From the original AR10, AR15, and M16 to the M16A4 lets take a brief look at the life of this truly unique firearm.

Birth of the Assault Rifle
Starting a few years after World War Two, the United States military began dissecting infantry combat experience that had been seen during the war. What was shown was that most combat that a typical infantrymen saw was at closer than 300 yards. The Russians and to some extent the Germans had learned this a bit earlier as they began to develop the world's first assault rifles. Where as the standard rifle from World War Two could be used at ranges upwards of 600 yards, and the standard sub machine gun or machine pistol would be lucky to hit anything past 110 yards, these new rifles met in a happy middle almost perfectly meeting the 300 yard engagement distance. The Americans wanted to get their hand into this new technology and around 1948 the United States government wanted to move to a smaller, but higher velocity projectile, that they could design an assault rifle around.

Eugene in a Bottle
In the early 1950s almost simultaneously two things begin to happen that will lead to the eventual creation of the AR15. Eugene Stoner begins work in his AR10, and the U.S. Government launches project Salvo to search for a suitable 22 caliber rifle platform. Stoner's AR10 design was originally based on the 7.62Nato (7.62x51mm) cartridge that the American M14 had been using but decided it could be easily scaled down to accept a 22 caliber cartridge. At the same time that Stoner began to convert a AR10 to a smaller cartridge, a search for the perfect 22 caliber cartridge was in progress. Eventually a brand new round was produced by a joint venture between Remington, Sierra Bullets, and Armalite (the company Stoner was working for at the time). The final projectile design was based on the popular .222 cartridge that was used for hunting.

When the final product of so much blood, sweat, and tears rolled out of the prototype labs at Armalite the rifle was designated the AR-15. At this point many people were extremely excited to see the rifle as it was years ahead of its time - using many polymers that had not even been thought usable in weapon systems. Unfortunately early tests produced poor accuracy and reliability results - a fault of the new .223 cartridges only found out years later. The AR-15 got it's first taste of a poor reputation and the Armalite corporation was not pleased. The AR-15 rights were sold to Colt Firearms. Eugene Stoner not far beyond, 'decided' to follow his rifle to Colt to continue its evolution.

Growth as a Firearm
In the next few years the AR15 had begun to pick up a following among a few in the U.S. military brass. U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, was one of the original fans of the M16, ordering the first set to replace aging M1 and M2 Carbines that Airforce security staff were still using. Once LeMay had the chance to inspect the weapons in person he became a major proponent in increasing awareness of the new "space age rifle". The Department of Defense and other top ranking officials in the U.S. Airforce began to think of the actual possibilities for the rifle. The ARPA staff decided to give the rifle an official test and purchase around a few hundred and sent them to field test them in a new cold war conflict that began to attract American concern - the Vietnam War. Perhaps surprisingly to a few including the original Armalite staff, the AR15 received amazing battlefield reviews and was nick named the "little black rifle" by the few South Vietnamese who had used it in combat.
Rock Bottom
When the glowing reviews came in the Airforce and Army signed contracts with Colt to produce almost 100,000 rifles for the newly designated M16, and with continued success the entire U.S. military had orders placed for
upwards of 800,000 rifles. Unfortunately for the M16 this is where it takes a punch to the gut. As soon as a small majority of American servicemen were equipped with the new rifle, catastrophic malfunctions began to become the norm. Most of these errors were due to poor choices made by the U.S. Army and only a very few could blame the rifle's design for their occurrence. The majority of the issues with the original M16 in Vietnam dealt with reliability and could be counted on one hand, they included lack of positive extraction of spent shell casings and issues with the bolt not going into battery. These issues happened for majority of reasons but the main two happened to leave the Army brass at fault.
  1. Use of poor powder (poorly made 'ball' instead of 'stick' powder)
  2. Rumor of 100% self cleaning leading to the rifles not even being issued cleaning kits
The use of the powder choice was in part due to the lack of production power of Du Pont at the time. Du Pont quoted the military and told them there was no way that they could mass produce the specific powder the M16 required. The military then went to Olin Mathieson Company who could produce a powder that met ARPA requirements. However, this powder raised the cyclical rate of fire from 650-800 rounds per minute to over 1,000! Not only did this increase the rate of fire to a rate that the gun was not designed for but the powder itself burned extremely dirty and allowed for the gun to become encrusted in carbon dirt extremely rapidly. This in-conjunction with the lack of foresight from top military officials who allowed the rifles to be distributed with out cleaning kits provided a rifle that was useless after a few shots.

Many soldiers who were issued the original M16 often remarked they had single shot weapons. After the first shot in a firefight of a well used rifle and the rifle would jam. This sparked the many stories from the battlefield such as soldiers trying to find sticks to ram out the spent casing like their M16 was a muzzle loading musket, or soldiers picking up any gun but M16s to use whilst in combat. These stories and many others at first come across as fictitious or rumors when in fact they're true.
We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19, Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his M16 torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.
- Marine Corps Rifleman, Vietnam.
Quick Fix or Design for a Lifetime
These issues were soon figured out and procedures to rectify them began to be set into place, unfortunately not before American deaths were to occur. The first set of changes to the rifle was to chrome line the chamber, add a forward assist, and increase the weight of the buffer system to slow the cyclical rate down to its intended speed. The changes, while minimal, corrected almost all of the immediate issues with the firearm. This new M16 wore the designation XM16E1 and in 1967 adopted as the mainstay of the military forces in Vietnam. Soon after the XM16E1 was released another variant the M16A1 was introduced. The M16A1 just continued on the progress of the XM16E1 and added an entire chrome bore and a few other tweaks such as changing the flash hider. For the duration of the Vietnam War the United States would be equipped with the M16A1. It wasn't until much later when the M16A2 arrived on scene with its own set of objectives as a rifle.

It is interesting to note that at the time of inception of the M16A1 to main military service the Department of Defense queried over 2,000 users of the M16 and out of the entire reach only 38 reported they would like to see the M16 replaced - out of those 38, 35 wished the M16A1 would be replaced with the XM177 (CAR-15) the shorter carbine version of the rifle similar to the current day M4/M4A1. This number is perhaps even lower than what a similar polling of the M16A4/M4 would bring.

A Tribute
After researching much of the history of the AR-15 and so forth the M16 series of rifles I became very interested in creating a replica. I had chosen a time period in the Vietnam War that had been the most intriguing to me -1968 - specifically the Tet Offensive. Now I could go in depth about the Tet Offensive but that will have to wait for the time being. The thing to know is that 1968 was the year in which the M16s and XM16E1s were being transitioned to the M16A1, and specifically the Tet Offensive was right in between the transition so a lot of the M16A1 have minor features that the later (1969 and on) A1s did not have.

My main reason in building this reproduction was to honor those who had served and to preserve history as best as I could. You wouldn't believe the amount of people that wonder about that funky looking AR15 when I take it to the range - it is a blast!

Without further adieu here are some pictures of the Ann Arbor Gun Guys having a great time with my tribute to those who preserved freedom so many decades ago.

Thanks for reading and stay with us as some cool articles are in the works.

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